For all young prospects looking to make their way into the National Basketball Association (NBA), there is perhaps no greater validation of their talent and hard work than being featured in the annual NBA draft. Since the late 1940s, the draft has gifted the league a good number of its top players. Among them are some of the best the league has ever seen like Lebron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson who were selected first overall in their respective years, and Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Carmelo Anthony who were selected third overall in theirs. Many hopefuls miss the NBA draft but only a select few manage to make lemonade out of the lemons they were dealt.
Who is the most successful undrafted NBA player? Ben Wallace is the most successful undrafted NBA player in the league’s history. The former Detroit Piston resume speaks for itself having won the prestigious NBA Defensive Player of the Year award a record four times (tied for most with Dikembe Mutombo) and been an integral part of the Pistons’ 2004 title-clinching squad. The Alabama native was also featured in multiple NBA All-Star, All-NBA, NBA All-Defensive teams and led the league in rebounds and blocks twice and once respectively.
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In the multitude of rags-to-riches stories, Ben Wallace’s story is truly exceptional. The 2002 NBA Blocks Leader was born as the 10th of 11 women in White Hall, Alabama – a small town with a population of fewer than 800 people in Lowndes County – in September 1974. Like many other families who resided in the impoverished area, Wallace’s family struggled to make ends meet and had to eke a living by working in the nearby cotton plantations.
Contrary to the towering figure that many NBA fans came to know him as, Wallace was smaller in stature than his older siblings and was often outmatched in the sports they played. His love affair with basketball began when his older brother brought a basketball and some jerseys home wanting to form a team.
Wallace quickly took to basketball like fish to water and soon began outplaying his brothers, who thereafter stopped competing against him. The experience made the two-time NBA Rebounds Leader aware of his unique ability, which only grew Wallace’s interest in the sport, and began to develop the gritty and studious nature character that would later propel him to stardom.
Missing the Draft
By the time he transitioned to Central High School, Wallace was already a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court and equally dominated other sports like football and baseball – all of which he received all-state honors for.
His first taste of the NBA (both literal and figurative) came via a camp hosted by former New York Knicks star Charles Oakley, which Wallace attended when he 17. At the camp, Wallace held his own in a one-on-one challenge against a naturally aggressive Oakley, who went as far as busting the then-teenager’s lip.
The encounter earned Wallace Oakley’s admiration and the “Oak Tree” would later recommend the budding standout to his alma mater – Virginia Union – which Wallace attended from 1994 to 1996 registering an impressive 13.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game en route to a First-team Division II All-American selection.
Wallace then declared for the 1996 NBA draft that featured the likes of the late great Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, and Steve Nash but failed to attract any suitors except the Celtics, who initially invited the strongman for a workout before late passing on him.
In his true never-give-up attitude, Wallace temporarily joined Italian side Viola Reggio Calabria before receiving a call from former Washington Bullets player and executive Wes Unseld, who offered him a path back into the NBA.
Becoming Big Ben
At the Bullets, Wallace struggled to find consistent playing time behind the likes of Chris Webber and Harvey Grant but quickly built up a reputation as a reliable contributor, especially on the defensive end.
The five-time NBA All-Defensive First Team honoree was then traded to the Orlando Magic in August 1999 and firmly established himself as a starter in the season he dwelt there before finding himself on a move yet again to the Detroit Pistons in a deal involving seven-time NBA All-Star Grant Hill.
With the Pistons, Wallace finally found his perfect fit finishing second in the league in rebounds per game and top 10 in blocks per game in his maiden season despite the fact that they did not make the playoffs. His second season (2001-02) saw him lead the league in both rebounds and blocked shots to clinch his first NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.
The following campaign saw Wallace achieve the feat a second time and embark on a deep playoff run before losing to the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals. His crowning moment came in the 2004 NBA Finals where he posted averages of 10.3 points, 14.3 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks to help the Pistons win their third and final NBA World Championship to date against a Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led Los Angeles Lakers.
Wallace and the Pistons returned to the NBA Finals the following season but fell to the San Antonio Spurs which featured greats Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginóbili. The Pistons thereafter gradually declined but Wallace kept up his play and managed to win back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2005 and 2006.
Curtain Call and the Ultimate Honor
After brief stints with the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wallace called time on his career as a Piston in 2012 with averages of 5.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game respectively.
In his final season in the Motor City, Wallace set the record for the most games played by an undrafted player and is the only undrafted player to be selected as a starter for the NBA All-Star game at the time of the writing of this article.
Wallace is also the only player in NBA history to register 1,000 rebounds, 100 blocks, and 100 steals in four consecutive seasons. His career came full circle when the Pistons raised his jersey to the rafters during a half-time ceremony in January 2016.
The ex-strongman is currently the only modern-day undrafted player to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, earning him the crown of the most successful undrafted player in NBA history.